New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s cannabis legalization plan, included in his budget for the third year in a row, still falls short on equity.
This was the message from key lawmakers and advocacy groups during a virtual Lobby Day on Thursday, during which they urged a push on the adult use cannabis legalization plan introduced by Senator Liz Krueger and Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.854/A.1248).
Cuomo’s plan, they said, focuses on legalization through more of a revenue lens than a justice lens, and, further, it expands criminal penalties. For example, while it is currently a misdemeanor to sell cannabis to someone under 21, Cuomo’s plan would make it a felony.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of people, because of the pandemic and its impact on our economy, who simply want to count this as an issue that is about raising revenue. It is not in my mind. It never has been, and it never will be. It’s about a lot more than that,” Peoples-Stokes said Thursday.
Stokes added that legislation must reinvest in those who have, for decades, been negatively affected by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws. As the American Civil Liberties Union has found, Black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite comparable use rates.
“We have seen the governor’s proposal for the third time,” Peoples-Stokes continued. “OK, now let us put our proposal out there, get it passed by the legislature, and then we’ll begin to negotiate with the governor. Clearly, his tax proposals are all wrong. Clearly, his social equity proposals are all wrong. So there are a number of things that need to be fixed. And if they’re not fixed, then we’ll be here next year trying to do the same thing.”
Last year, equity was a top disagreement between lawmakers and Cuomo. One example: Cuomo’s plan put cannabis tax revenue into the general fund to allow flexibility in allocation, but lawmakers wanted to earmark some of that revenue for equity.
“We’re going to legalize marijuana and take all the revenues and dump it into the state budget and do what we’ve always been doing? I’m not going to be supportive of that,” Peoples-Stokes recently told Cannabis Wire, emphasizing that funds need to flow back to the communities that were most harmed.
Krueger echoed that point, recently telling Cannabis Wire, “My focus on this topic completely has always been: can we create a new model of economic activity that fairly ensures communities who are hardest hit by the failed drug wars can be helped to be made whole by investment in businesses that serve those communities, so that there’s entrepreneurship with Black and brown people, the owners of new kinds of related cannabis companies.”
Cuomo’s legalization plan this year does put money toward equity—$100 million over the next five years, and $50 million each following year—but, on the whole, lawmakers and advocates said on Thursday, it falls short.
“To my mind, the most compelling reason for doing this has always been to end the unnecessary and destructive impact of the so-called war on drugs, which has really been a war on Black and brown communities,” Kreuger said Thursday. But, she added, “it’s not just about getting it done. It’s about getting it done to make sure it addresses racial and economic justice.”
The deadline for the budget is April, and the legislative session ends in June. While lawmakers and the governor have not been able to come to an agreement before deadlines in past years, one factor could nudge Cuomo toward compromise: legalization in neighboring New Jersey, where voters approved adult use on their ballots in November.
(It’s worth noting that disagreement between advocates and lawmakers and the governor on criminal penalties has held up the passage of a bill necessary to implement adult use in New Jersey.)
“I have been a co-sponsor of legislation to legalize, regulate, and tax adult use of marijuana since 1972. So, this is not a fight for the faint of heart,” said Assembly Member Richard Gottfried on Thursday. “It’s unfortunate that Governor Cuomo, who as of two or three years ago was seen as a leader in the effort to get this long overdue legislation finally passed, at this point, the world has kind of progressed on and his budget language is now, I would say, a key obstacle to getting good, fair, progressive legislation done on marijuana.”